Advice for how not to conduct your first class in the new semester (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed

A young friend of ours recently attended her first classes for the spring semester, only to leave quite early because all the professors did was perform brief introductions and go over the syllabus. I’d like to suggest that this kind of session, which could be one of the most important classes in the term, represents unacceptable pedagogy, cheating the students who have signed up for a semester’s worth of instruction.

My guess is that this stance will be unpopular, with a variety of defensive responses. No one is more conservative than an instructor who’s become used to a certain way of doing things. But at the risk of offending professionals, I’d like to raise some potential objections and attempt to deal with them.

Objection 1: It’s the first day, and we have no work assigned yet. Surely you have some lesson plan that can serve instead of going over the list of required readings. Prepare a handout to review in class, or start explaining the terms you’ll be using this semester. Ask students what they expect from a course like yours, and start a discussion. Take the opportunity to provide some background for the course, from the history underlying the subject to a sketch of coming events.

Objection 2: Some students may not yet have enrolled, and to provide content at this point means catching up. The same issue arises during student absences, yet no one objects to those gaps. In these days of Zoom classes, point to the recorded class, if you’ve enabled that, or ask other students if they can provide class notes.

Objection 3: The administration has increased the number of weeks in the semester, and this is our way of fighting back. To provide null content to your students in an attempt to combat administrative fiat is a poor method of resistance. Make your voice heard, and mention the issue to your students if you like, but don’t cheapen your course.

Objection 4: Many students welcome a first class with no pressure. Hmm. Those are often the same students who cry, “Yay, snow day!” when classes are canceled for any reason. Don’t let slackers rule your classroom.

Objection 5: I’ve always taught my classes this way. I’m not sure this response deserves much comment. But if you haven’t changed your classroom routine in umpteen years, you’re shortchanging both your students and yourself.

Objection 6: There’s no shame in ending class early. Maybe not, but don’t kid yourself that you’ve done your job. If you were a student, I’d say that you’ve handed in only part of the assignment.

Objection 7: This space is for whatever else you can come up with in an attempt to justify shirking. Please, to establish integrity in your course delivery, consider a full-period class on opening day. I don’t like the term “best practices” because it implies standards I may not agree with, but conducting a class that lasts all of half an hour surely doesn’t fall in that category. Unfortunately, many students have come to count on this empty ritual during the first week, but that, too, is no reason to continue it.

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